Simon Leys
Broken Images

The question of social background plays a dominant role in the People's Republic; it is essential to be 'of good family' (ch'u shen hao—that is, the son of a worker, a poor or middle peasant, a soldier or, best of all, an influential party official). Only in the sciences and strategic industries (nuclear physics, aeronautics, etc.) are exceptions made, so that men of suspect origins but also of genius may freely pursue their careers. In all the other sectors it is practically impossible tor an individual branded by his 'bad social origins', however gifted he may be, to reach a position that matches his talents. The blind enforcement of this rule has led to an incredible waste of talent, and has caused the People's Republic to alienate a vast array of specialists. Such people, educated abroad in a great variety of disciplines, have asked only to return to China to put their abilities at the service of their country. And heaven knows, their abilities could have been put to profitable use.

To cite only one example among many: a former colleague of mine, educated in England from the age of fifteen and having gained a Ph.D. there, returned to live in Mao's China. He fully realised that his philosophy degrees would be of little use there but, with some common sense, he calculated that his knowledge of English, which he spoke as if it were a second mother tongue, would at least enable him to serve as a translator, interpreter or teacher. (China needs qualified linguists, especially in English, and is now trying its hardest to train as many as possible.) Unfortunately his social origins were 'bad', and he has been employed for seven years as a lorry driver in Sinkiang.

Of the most recent exiles in Hong Kong the most vehemently bitter are those people who were bom in Hong Kong but returned to China in the 1950s, in an outburst of patriotic fervour. Most of them were adolescents at the time. They were discouraged by the materialism of the people around them, by the humiliation of being under a colonial regime, and were inspired by the victory of the revolution in their mother country. They broke with their families and surroundings, and with the dry rot, torpor and compromise of the old world; in a proud affirmation of youthful freedom they left for China. Twenty years later, here they are again. Some obtained a regular exit visa as Overseas Chinese, others escaped at the risk of their lives. One of the latter, who has asked the colonial administration tor his status as a British subject to be restored (he would like to get a passport to leave Hong Kong and go as far away as possible, because he doesn't feel safe so near China),' told me the ironical story of how, with pride in his heart, he was about to cross the Lowu bridge twenty years ago, when with a juvenile, theatrical gesture he tore his colonial identity, card to shreds and threw them in the face of the British policeman on duty at the bridge.

Their lack of maturity and information when they decided to go to China, and their romantic illusions, account for some of the disappointment, the disenchantment and finally the despair that seized them later. But there is a common denominator in; their various destinies, underlying this despair: all of them came up against the same impenetrable wall of suspicion from the Chinese authorities. Neither their sacrifice in breaking with family and home, nor their unquestionable zeal—nothing could ever disarm the invincible distrust which their bourgeois-colonial origins aroused; they were condemned to a life of indefinite vegetation as near-pariahs. The tragedy of this 'original sin' is that it can never be effaced. Even if you are born after the Liberation into a bourgeois family that had already lost all its privileges, and no matter how great your loyalty to the regime, you are still a bourgeois, and you will transmit the contagion to your descendants. At this point the notion has lost all connection with any economic or even ideological foundation, and is simply based on heredity.

There are some categories of people who are very much exposed, especially in the former intellectual and liberal professions such as teaching and medicine. Doctors who finished their education before the Liberation are particularly vulnerable. Under the Kuomintang they were all forced, once their studies were over, to serve a term in the army as officers. As a result each of them has a file which records this counter-revolutionary episode in his career, and with every succeeding fit of purge-fever the file is hauled out again. Because medicine and teaching are professions in which a sense of duty and devotion to the service of the community are by no means rare, the persecution suffered by many doctors and teachers during the 'Cultural Revolution' often aroused the public's disgust. Particularly unbearable was the spectacle of well-known and universally respected people being fitted up with placards and grotesque, ignominious headgear and forced on all fours to lap food from a bowl on the ground.

The corollary to the ban on all socially impure elements, however much goodwill they demonstrate, is that people 'of good family' enjoy all the promotion. Is there some proletarian Proust who can describe the workings of this topsy-turvy Gentlemen's Club for us? As always, it is the offspring of the party bureaucrats, 'the new class', who are most insufferable. Their impudence and arrogance know no bounds, and they have managed all by themselves to make a teacher's life purgatory; in China today there is no' more wretched or thankless profession. H, who for several years was a casual teacher in several Kwangchow schools, described his experience to me as a veritable Calvary. The more impeccable their proletarian pedigree, the less these schoolchildren feel obliged to pay attention to what the teacher is trying to get across. Secure in the knowledge that they will not be punished, they defy the teacher, who in turn dare not scold them for fear of reprisals: anyone who tried to impose authority would immediately find himself accused of 'trammelling the spontaneity of the revolutionary masses'. As soon as pupils fall behind in their schoolwork, they denounce the teacher for his 'esoteric mandarinism'. When these 'gilded youth' get low marks in their exams, the un-happy teacher is pulled aside by the headmaster: 'What's got into you, harassing the children of proletarians? Do you think your bourgeois upbringing entitles you to...' and so on. For a while, H worked voluntary overtime, going to the homes of these little toughs and giving them extra coaching, in an effort to keep them afloat in spite of themselves. In the end he had to agree with the cynical but sound advice a more experienced colleague had given him: 'The easiest way to solve your problem is to raise automatically the grades of all the children who are "from good families".'

China's leaders justify the systematic and total elimination of the bourgeoisie by the need to consolidate the authority of the 'new class' and to prevent any danger of the old society being restored. The most pathetic thing about all this is that in fact the chosen adversary is the ghost of this already vanished bourgeoisie, and if one can trust the indications now evident in the sphere of culture and the arts, this ghost seems set fair to survive, and to become the sardonic master of the battlefield. It is puerile to think that by systematically placing only proletarians in all the important positions one can exorcise the influence of the bourgeoisie. The effect is actually the opposite. Bourgeois values, and especially their attendant fetishes and trivialities, recruit their most ardent and pathetic followers among people who have been deprived of them all their lives, whereas the bourgeois-born are more inclined to whisk a critical broom through the attic of their class ancestors. There is nothing, new about this: here again, the Soviet experience has proved to be prophetic, so that when you read a perceptive description of Moscow in the 1930s, such as Malcolm Muggeridge's in his fascinating autobiography, you are struck by the way practically all his remarks could be picked up and applied word for word to the realities of today's Peking. For instance:
Once, sitting with Mirsky in the lounge of the National Hotel, I remarked upon its excruciating taste. Yes, he agreed, it was pretty ghastly, but it expressed the sense of what a luxury hotel should be like in the mind of someone who had only stared in at one through plate-glass windows from the cold, inhospitable street outside. This, he said, was the key to all the regime's artistic products—the long turgid novels, the lifeless portraits and landscapes in oils, the gruesome People's neo-Gothic architecture, the leaden conservatory concerts and creaking ballet. Culturally, it was all of a piece. There is no surer way of preserving the worst aspects of bourgeios style than liquidating the bourgeoisie; whatever else Stalin may, or may not, have done, he assuredly made Russia safe for The Forsyte Saga.

  The World was all before them, where to choose
Their place of rest, and Providence their guide:
They, hand in hand, with wand'ring steps and slow,

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Through Eden took their solitary way.